What is intersectionality, and why is it important to Sightsavers?

Emma Jolley, June 2021

Our life experiences are driven by characteristics such as our sex, age, race, disability and where we live. ‘Intersectionality’ describes how these different elements can combine to influence people’s lives.

When two or more characteristics overlap, this can sometimes worsen the discrimination or exclusion that someone faces.

One example we see from Sightsavers’ work is that in some countries, being a girl or having a disability would make a child less likely to go to school. However, girls with a disability have a double disadvantage: this group of children are even less likely to get an education.

Intersectionality is important for Sightsavers because we need to understand who our services aren’t reaching, and why. This is where my work as a researcher comes in. I work closely with colleagues who run programmes and our partners to do research to understand who is excluded, and why. We can then look at what needs to be done to include them.

This month, the Inclusive Data Charter (IDC) is launching a range of tools and case studies to support governments, agencies and NGOs to collect and use better data on intersectionality. These materials were developed building on the momentum gathered following an online event in February 2021 where several organisations, including Sightsavers, shared their experiences of collecting, analysing and using intersectional data to improve their work.

As a researcher at Sightsavers, focusing mainly on studies around health and inclusion of people with disabilities, I was really pleased to be able to speak at the event, and help develop a case study based on my experiences collecting and analysing intersectional data.

A girl and her mother sit on a bed, looking at each other and smiling.
In some countries, girls with disabilities are at a ‘double disadvantage’ in areas such as access to education.
An elderly woman sits in a chair, and receives an eye examination from a man wearing a white shirt. Another woman wearing a blue nurse's uniform sits next to her.
Sightsavers is testing new ways to measure social inequality and the effect it has on people's access to eye health services.

Putting intersectionality into practice

The case study we developed with the IDC on intersectionality gives an example of one of the ways we can measure who is excluded from eye health services.

In this case we found that women were less likely to access services, as were people with disabilities. Yet when we looked at how the characteristics interacted with each other, it was actually men with disabilities who were a little less likely to access services than women with disabilities, especially as they get older.

Of course, we couldn’t – and shouldn’t – try and measure every characteristic of every person in the world. There are huge ethical, legal and practical reasons why that wouldn’t work.

But we do need to know more about the characteristics that are keeping people from getting the health, education and other services they need to lead healthy and productive lives. Once we have that information, we can create policies and programmes that work for everyone, including those with multiple layers of disadvantage.

There’s currently no single, gold-standard approach to collecting data on people that will tell everyone everything they need to know. It will take some time to develop better approaches so we can identify those people who are most at risk of exclusion; we will also need everyone working in data to share what works – and what doesn’t – openly and honestly.

I was really pleased to be able to share my experiences working with disability data through the IDC’s project focusing on intersectionality. I’ve also been able to learn a huge amount from the other organizations that are taking part, both about the particular population groups they collect data from, and also their approaches to collecting and using data.

We may not have all the answers, but the materials launched by the IDC this month are an important step on the road to improvement.

Read the IDC’s white paper, and explore case studies from organisations taking an intersectional approach to data.

An elderly woman and a younger woman sit next to a man who holds a clipboard, in a hospital waiting area.

Sightsavers and inclusive data

Sightsavers is one of the founding champions of the Inclusive Data Charter, which brings together governments and organisations to support inclusive and disaggregated data.

More about the Charter


Sightsavers logoEmma Jolley is the global technical lead for health and disability research at Sightsavers.


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